In 2009 or 2010, three looted sculptures were taken in the ancient city of Palmyra. Several years later, customs officials in Switzerland seized them in a free port in Geneva. Finally, they return home to Syria, the Art journal reports.
All three sculptures date back to the second and third centuries BCE, when Palmyra was still a trading hub, possibly during the reign of Queen Zenobia. One of the sculptures is the bust of a priest wearing a ceremonial headdress. The sculpture was badly damaged by looters when they removed it from the site, as the head also had a body. Experts have developed hypotheses on which statue the head belongs to, but there has been no confirmation. The other two sculptures are funerary reliefs, one of a woman and the other of a man, both flanked by an animal holding a ring in its mouth.
The sculptures were looted before the start of the civil war in Syria. Items looted from ancient sites like Palmyra were known to be major sources of funds for terrorist groups. Artifacts stolen by ISIS flooded the antiques market at the height of the group’s power. Along with the looting, ISIS made a concerted effort to destroy pre-Islamic artifacts, as well as much of Palmyra, in what has been called a cultural genocide. The return of these Palmyra artifacts represents one of the first steps towards healing the wounds of these enormous losses.
In 2017, the looted objects were exhibited at the Geneva Museum of Art and History to raise awareness of the misdeeds of looting. In 2020, the United Nations held a tribunal and it was there that the Syrian authorities claimed the parts and demanded that they be returned. The statues were kept in the Museum of Art and History until delivery.
When the artifacts were discovered in Geneva, authorities learned that they had been shipped from Qatar. The sculptures were found with other items looted in Libya and Yemen. The statues were handed over to Syria’s Permanent Mission to the United Nations last week.